Los Angeles is getting its franchise player back.
The Sparks entered this season with enough top-level talent to rival any other team in the WNBA. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, just like several other squads across the league, injuries have prevented the Sparks from trotting out their full-strength roster.
Tuesday, L.A. gets one step closer to 100 percent, as franchise cornerstone Candace Parker returns to the lineup for her 2019 debut. Parker injured her left hamstring during the first quarter of the Sparks’ preseason game on May 11 in Phoenix. She left the game immediately, sat out the second game of the preseason, and has missed the first seven contests of the regular season.
On media day (May 14), the team announced that Parker would be out 3-to-5 weeks. Given the team’s depth in the frontcourt, Los Angeles has been able to allow her to rehab at a measured pace, and Parker only started practicing last week once the Sparks returned from their first road trip. On Tuesday June 11, head coach Derek Fisher said, “[Candace] was out there with us today for, you know, 80 to 85 percent of everything that we did, and she’s definitely going in the right direction.” There was some hope that Parker would play in either of the team’s two games last week, which Los Angeles split, but she is back now, at the 5-week mark of her original recovery timeline.
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Parker should slot back into the starting lineup, presumably replacing Sydney Wiese. Wiese has performed admirably as a starter for six games after being unable to crack the rotation under Brian Agler the previous two seasons, and has proved a worthy spot-up threat from the perimeter. However, she is the most limited offensive player within the starting lineup, and her defense pales in comparison to Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who has also entered the starting five to replace the injured Alana Beard.
The addition of Parker into the starting lineup will instantly help to relieve the offensive burden on Chelsea Gray. Gray has been tremendous to start the season, both in terms of her ability to create for others and generate her own offense. That has been particularly necessary since the other two perimeter starters for much of the season (Ruffin-Pratt and Wiese) aren’t really capable of creating their own shots against a set defense.
Parker, however, is an outstanding playmaker. It’s arguably the best skill in the future Hall of Famer’s expansive toolbox. Beard was effusive about how much the team missed Parker and how she will be able to excel in the free-flowing that Fisher and the new coaching are implementing Los Angeles.
“Everyone knows what Candace Parker can do, obviously another leader on this team,” Beard said. “Don’t need to say it, but her IQ and the way I think she will excel in this system, because it opens it up for her to play the game that she loves to play, and that’s the thinking game. So she’s going to make us that much better.”
Fisher has lamented the team’s tendency to stagnate on offense at times, particularly down the stretch against New York last Saturday, as the players lack the discipline to move the ball from side to side. That should be less of an issue with Parker on the floor. Even though she isn’t the most feared three-point shooter, Parker’s presence on the court shouldn’t disturb the Sparks’ spacing, given her ability to make plays from anywhere on the floor.
Going a little bit bigger might help Los Angeles resolve its perpetual rebounding woes, as the team ranks 11th in the league in rebounding percentage. The Sparks finally out-rebounded the Liberty, albeit in a losing effort, but their determination to protect the paint came at the cost of allowing Amanda Zahui B free rein at the three-point line, resulting in a career night for the New York center.
Parker’s return comes another potent offensive team in the Washington Mystics, who start Elena Delle Donne at the four. At full health, Parker would be the ideal defensive matchup against Delle Donne, but in her first game back from injury, it probably behooves Los Angeles to give that assignment to Chiney or Nneka Ogwumike. Doing so would slot Parker onto Ariel Atkins or Natasha Cloud, both smaller players who would have no chance of guarding the former MVP though they could use their speed to their advantage on the offensive end.
Despite those potential challenges, it will be good for Fisher to finally get his best player back, with all due respect to Gray and Nneka Ogwumike, particularly the latter, whose all-around excellence has been overlooked due to the flashy nature of Gray’s standout play. It is high time, however, for the Sparks start to figure out what their rotation will look like – is it sustainable to play Parker alongside two other bigs or will she have to settle in as a power forward? Will Wiese find a role off the bench or once again be marginalized? How long will it take Parker to regain her All-Star form?
Fortunately for the team, and for the increasingly curious viewing public, those answers will start to come tonight when on the WNBA’s best gets back to business.
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